By Dara Garner-Edwards, MSW, LCSW, Family Counselor, Brenner Children’s Hospital
Despite how perfect your child is to you, she might develop concerns about weight at some point—particularly in her tween and teen years. And while you can’t control the messages your child receives from peers and pop culture, there are things you as a parent can do to help her develop a healthy attitude toward her appearance:
1. Listen to your child’s concerns. Allow your child to bring up appearance-related worries when she’s ready. If, for example, your child is overweight, it’s something she’s probably already very sensitive about. Pointing it out can end up doing more damage to her self-esteem. So, while it’s important to be aware of what’s going on in your child’s life, it’s helpful to let her address her body concerns in her own time.
Of course, if your child seems withdrawn or upset, it’s completely acceptable to ask her what’s going on. If she wants to talk, listen to her. If not, wait for another time. When she does share what’s going on, it’s important to offer support. If, however, your child is experiencing severe weight or body image issues that you feel unequipped to deal with, please consider taking her to a pediatrician or counselor for help.
2. Give your child age-appropriate help. The ways in which you help your child should depend on her age. Children younger than age 8 don’t really pay attention to health concerns or how their bodies’ appearance compares to other children’s. They might, however, notice related issues, like not being able to run as fast as their friends.
So if your child is young, and you have a concern about her weight, it’s not an issue that needs to be addressed out loud. Simply make changes at home that are conducive to a healthier body weight. These alterations can include becoming more active as a family and stocking your kitchen with healthier snacks. What I don’t recommend is to sit your child down and say something like, “I’m worried about your weight, and this is what we’re going to do about it.”
Once children get between the ages of 8 and 11, they start becoming more aware of their bodies in comparison to those of their peers. However, they’re still not developmentally able to understand the health-related reasons to change weight. So if your tween comes to you wanting help in making healthy changes, the two of you can make a plan together and your child will need support to follow the plan.
As your child grows past age 12 she’ll become more in control of her daily choices, but she’ll still need a supportive environment, as well as healthy food and activity options, at home.
3. Work on health and weight issues as a team. When it comes to a healthier lifestyle, teamwork is key. Therefore it’s good for the entire family to embrace the changes you make to improve your child’s well-being. For example, you don’t want the rest of the family having potato chips and restrict your child to only having fruit. She’ll end up feeling singled out—an emotion that will likely exacerbate any body image issues she has.
Everyone in the family needs to be working toward the same goal, and that goal is: No matter what size we are, we all need to adopt habits that will make us healthier.
4. Use constructive, not destructive, language. Any comments you make about your child’s appearance, food choices or activity level are best kept positive. Say, for instance, you’ve noticed your child’s clothes are getting tighter. A positive response to such a scenario would be, “You’re still growing; wWe need to go shopping.” Whereas a negative statement would be, “You’ve been eating too much; we’re going to have to get you some bigger clothes.”
It’s unlikely that a mom would intentionally hurt her child’s feelings, but sometimes a simple statement, like telling her she doesn’t need a second helping at dinner, can come across as highly critical to a sensitive tween or teen.
Changing the way you talk about or address weight is not the same as avoidance. Your job is to support your child. Weight gain is complicated and involving blame will only make it worse.
5. Keep your own body issues in check. One of the most important ways to help your child maintain a positive attitude about weight is for you to demonstrate a healthy sense of self. If your child witnesses you criticizing your image in the mirror, she’ll end up picking up the same behavior and start looking for things to criticize about her own appearance.
So always keep it positive. Even if you’re looking at yourself and thinking, “This dress makes my butt look big,” just keep that thought to yourself and instead say something like, “I don’t think this is what I want to wear today.”
If your child recognizes that you accept yourself as you are, there’s a better chance she’ll adopt a similar attitude.
Brenner FIT provides a free class about the challenges of parenting. The class is called “My Kids Are Driving Me Crazy” and is offered monthly with free childcare. For more information, visit www.brennerchildrens.org/BrennerFIT and look under the Kohl’s Family Collaborative Programs section.